Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Not getting beaten up by the police in Tunis: A 10th anniversary special

"Run away!"
In the aftermath of this week's Parisian horror, the BBC News Magazine section asks What should you do in an attack? One of the options that people should consider, it says, is to run away - advice which has been met with mockery in some parts.

Those who laugh at this advice are very wrong, for running away from trouble in the face of heavily-armed goons has saved my bacon on at least one occasion. In fact, tomorrow marks the tenth anniversary of my not getting beaten up by heavily-armed goons in Tunisia, who were at one stage charging straight for your humble author armed with big sticks and steel toe-capped boots.

When faced with hairy-arsed Tunisian police charging straight at you armed with big sticks and steel toe-capped boots, damn right I'm going to run away and not stick around to help them with their enquiries. And so should you.

So, here's what happened in Tunisia, and let this be a lesson in the art of surviving through cowardice to you all:

"Bollocks to this, I'm off"
My employers thought it would be a good idea to send me to a United Nations conference in Tunisia on the grounds that many important things might be happening there. I was enthused by the fact I might be in the same room as Colonel Qadaffi and Robert Mugabe, but in the end the not-lamented Colonel threw a hissy fit and decided to go home.

Tunisia, at the time, was under the cosh of a what one might call a government quite used to dealing very firmly with dissent. Though welcoming to tourists and their money, they weren't particularly open to such wacky ideas as "freedom of expression" and "democracy". So - of course - that made it the ideal place to hold a UN Conference on freedom of expression and democracy.

Some Tunisian freedom groups, fresh from having their heads stoved in by government heavies, decided it would be an ideal time to stage a demonstration asking if they could - if the President didn't mind - have a little bit of freedom and democracy to speak their minds regarding being oppressed and beaten up by government heavies all the time. The world's press, bored out of their skulls from being stuck in a press centre for three days with all the best world leaders failing to show up, thought they might like to get out, stretch their legs, and go and take a look at Tunisian street politics in action. Idiots.

This is what a typical conference media centre looks like. No wonder people try to escape
So, a fleet of taxis left the conference centre and headed to downtown Tunis where the demo was to take place. We disembarked to see a small crowd of demonstrators facing off with a larger mob of heavily-armed government heavies, all in riot gear. Before long, the heavily-armed government heavies in riot gear started hitting people over the head with their big sticks. When people fell over after being hit over the head with big sticks, the heavily-armed government heavies in riot gear then kicked them very hard with their steel-capped boots. Very effective tactics, not lost on the watching press upon whom the heavily-armed government heavies in riot gear then turned their attention.

I had recently been on the corporate Hazardous Environments Course - after which I had been presented with a nice certificate which said I knew what to do in a hazardous environment - and recognised that this could possibly be a hazardous environment. Remembering my classics (The Tale of Sir Robin in Money Python and the Holy Grail), I knew exactly what to do in the circumstances.


"Where to, bud?"

As heavily-armed government heavies in riot gear bore down on us, the taxi driver also knew exactly what to do, and floored it.

Time was a blur, but I was back at the conference centre within 20 minutes of leaving, clutching my precious taxi receipt. Over the next couple of hours, my colleagues in the world's Fourth Estate arrived back in various shades of agony, nursing bleeding heads and bruised limbs, our generous hosts having taught them a lesson in local values. The Discipline of the Baseball Bat, as scholars of Irvine Welsh might say.

The following morning's press briefing was a tense affair. Journalists, as a rule, don't like being in pain, especially at the hands of their otherwise generous hosts who had thoughtfully provided free air conditioning and a wireless network that was clearly being monitored by state goons. The puffy-faced minder sent to look after us was given both barrels, especially when it emerged that all the remaining seminars, meetings and press conferences on press freedom had somehow been double-booked and were now cancelled. And Qadaffi had cried off too, suddenly remembering as he crossed the border that he hated Tunisia and everybody in it.

To make matters worse, the man from the official state news agency, immediately recognisable in a cheap jacket stained with sweat (possibly not his own) with the word "PRESS" written across the shoulders - whose role up until then had been to wander round the press centre making sure nobody wrote anything that criticised our generous hosts - had tried to circulate an open letter for us all to sign. 

Imagine this, on a nylon suit jacket several times too small, worn by a sweaty man with a walrus moustache, clearly used to expenses-paid lunches

It declared "We, the undersigned, thank our generous Tunisian hosts for their wonderful hospitality, and I am completely uninjured". That went down like a cup of cold sick, as you can imagine, and as signing it seemed to be compulsory, most of the names appeared to be fictional. James Bond had signed it three times, all in different hands.

You could tell where Sweaty Ali (for that was his nickname) was in the room by the cries of "Look, just fuck off, will you?" I signed it "Lunchtime O'Booze of The Daily Gnome" just to make him go away, and he seemed well pleased. Luckily, it was the last day of the event, and we were able to retire to our luxurious beach-front hotels to write up the copy we would file just as soon as we left the country. And to get drunk, as well.

And if you think those were trying circumstances, the worst battle was yet to come. My editor turned down my expenses claim on the grounds that a phone call I had made back to base to say that I was alive could not be itemised. 

It's a hard life in the press. That's why I prefer to drive a desk.


Flaxen Saxon said...

Tis not cowardice Sir, tis prudence. Unless Of course you were suitably furnished with a big stick and a gang of goons/loons.

Tony said...

Do crazed gunmen consider it more sporting to shoot their victims on the wing?

Alistair Coleman said...

I don't think 'sporting' comes into it with Islamic State.

TRT said...

Nor, it seems, does being a Muslim. They appear to consider shooting you in the head as doing you a favour by speeding up your re-union with Allah.

And I thought the end of the world would be brought about by the proximity of Monkey World, Dorset Tank Museum and Winfrith Nuclear Reactor.

Mr Larrington said...

For reasons possibly not unconnected with Loathesome Drunkennes and Moral Turpitude I once found myself helping a group of Belgians nick a street sign in St Malo when the rozzers showed up and started unbuttoning their holsters. "Merde! C'est les flics!" exclaimed a Belgian (who bore an uncanny resemblance to Plug from "The Bash Street Kids"), before leaping from my shoulders and running the fuck away. My French is far from fluent but running the fuck away is the same in any language. If the Olympic selectors had been around I'd have made Team GB at the LA Games.